The Ark, Alvechurch
Article as appeared in Spring 2008 EASA Journal by Sebastian Rowe BSc DipArch RIBA
I started the Spring Meeting earlier than scheduled, this year. I wondered, as I set off, whether I would have time to make a quick detour to see the Presidents' Award winning scheme at Alvechurch, just south of the M42. The village seemed so close to my journey line and it would be sad to miss such an opportunity and to go sailing by. Something niggled at me about the name of the place, and I was sure that it was on my 'pilgrimage' list for another reason.
I look after the church of St James in the little village of Baldersby St James, created for the 7th Viscount Downe by William Butterfield. This village was close to Baldersby Park, the principal seat of the Viscount in the Vale of Mowbray between the North Yorkshire Moors and the Yorkshire Dales. The village is small but illustrates Butterfield's sense of hierarchy: simple brick cottages around the perimeter become progressively more refined in their use of materials towards the central climax of the composition, the church and rectory. The church is built in coursed rock-faced gritstone with smooth faced sandstone banded walls, steep pitched roofs in clay tile and a slender steeple on the south west corner, where the banding continues up to the ironwork cage finial.
Internally, Butterfield has used his developed preference for polychromatic brickwork. The walls, as outside, are banded, using a mellow blend of brick, producing a subdued atmosphere; a sense that is emphasised by his use of blue window glass.
Baldersby is the last example of this early style. It followed St Thomas, Leeds (now demolished) and the Chapel at Balliol College, Oxford, which has been so modified that it is difficult to appreciate Butterfield's original concept. After Baldersby, Butterfield used more vibrant colours in his polychromy. Alvechurch was the first of this style – or so I thought.
I arrived at the church and walked through the south west gate. There, indeed, was the Ark, looking pristine and new, beyond the squat west tower. On the right hand side of the tower, though, was the unmistakable layered masonry that could only be Butterfield: red smooth coursed sandstone with yellow sandstone bands. So Butterfield and the Ark were in Alvechurch – in one and the same building!
I was lucky. The church was being cleaned and was therefore open and there were people in the Ark. I made the most of my opportunity. The interior was a wonder to behold. The dulled and weathered sandstone on the exterior give way to bright orange and cream brickwork: a marked change to Baldersby and definitely a change towards ‘in your face’ structural polychromy, developed later for the Rugby Schools, Keble College and the others.
The nave, south aisle and chancel are a re-build of the old parish church, of which only the north aisle and tower remain. As expected, the three new elements are a well co-ordinated hierarchy of spaces, as Baldersby, with similar roof details in nave, chancel and sanctuary. It was the wall materials, decoration and colours, that hit me and gave me the ‘wow’ factor as I entered the building.
Having seen this, the ark makes much more sense. A glazed door through the medieval north wall of the north aisle beckons visitors with a flood of light beyond. The transition is inviting and, stepping across the threshold, one meets the inside edges of the two great curved walls coming to meet you. These walls are orange/red brick with white sandstone bands. Apparently the planning authority refused the use of stone.
The resulting brickwork, as a lesser building material, fits into the Butterfield philosophy of hierarchy, just as the colours and expression extend his interior treatment of the church. The soft red hand-made bricks have a pink gritty mortar and the sandstone courses have natural coloured smooth mortar joints. The craftsmanship of the Ark is excellent. I have no doubt that Butterfield was watching and encouraging Graeme Beamish and will probably be enjoying the latest spawning of his building technique.
I set off for Hereford having been on a very happy detour. The weekend had started well and I was sure would continue with trips to Kilpeck and Abbey Dore planned for the Saturday excursion.